LIFE IS A DREAM BY PEDRO CALDERON DE LA BARCA

I’ve long felt that our grasp on reality is tenuous at best, that reality is, in fact, a tricksy sprite that it is difficult to get a handle on. Not only is it subjective, and open to interpretation [i.e. while I may believe that I am Napoleon, that don’t make it so for everyone else, even though it does make it so for me], it is also something that can abruptly change [I may not think I am Napoleon for 24 years and then suddenly decide that I am]. Our perception of ourselves and the world around us is dependent upon many factors, including the functioning of your brain, and your senses, all of which can deceive you. Everyone has, at some point, had experiences where their reality has been challenged, even if it is a small-scale thing like thinking you have heard something that no one else seems to have heard.

[You hear that?

No. What?

Come on, that banging? You must’ve heard it?

I didn’t hear any banging, you’re imagining it.

Like fuck I am, you’re deaf!]

On a personal note [just for a change, and all], I’m reminded of an ex-girlfriend who I was convinced was cheating on me, although I had no hard evidence. One night, when she was staying over, I woke to find that she was not next to me; without getting up I looked around, only to see her in the corner of the room huddled over her phone. I didn’t mention it straight away. but a week or so later, during an argument [as you do], I brought it up and she denied that the incident had ever taken place, that she had never got out of bed and taken her phone to the corner of the room. I maintained that I saw it with my own eyes, but she was so adamant that I had imagined it that I started to doubt myself. Had I dreamt it? Was I half asleep? Was I, like those who spy ghostly figures during the night, seeing things in the darkness? Even now, long after we broke up, I can’t be sure. The thing is, our reality is not only dependent upon our senses and brain etc, but is at least partly dependent, also, upon other people. If someone tells you that something that you think is the case, isn’t, or vice versa, and is convincing enough, then your reality itself can be changed.

In de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, a three act play written in verse and first published in 1635, the main thrust of the action centres around a young man who has been imprisoned by his father, the king of Poland, after a premonition that were he to succeed him he would bring violence and ruin to the kingdom. The king, however, perhaps being tickled by guilt, devises a plan whereby he will release his son, who does not know that he is a prince, and install him on the throne and observe his behaviour in order to see whether the prophesy was true. If, and here’s the fun bit, it turns out that the prince is prone to violence he will be returned to his cell and told that his release and brief reign was a dream. Will he be a good king? If not, will he buy all that it’s only a dream stuff? Would you buy it? You’d want to say not, but I’m not so sure any of us could make that claim with any certainty.

Aside from issues regarding the nature of reality de la Barca raises other interesting questions, such as is it better to live in ignorance, or to know the truth? The prince is to be told that his brief reign was a dream because the king believes that it is preferable to being imprisoned as a disgraced prince, but is he right? During my reading I kept returning to a situation I have witnessed more than once, where someone has terminal cancer and yet isn’t told. For me, the truth is important, is always preferable, even if it hurts. Life is a Dream is also an exploration of that age-old debate around nature vs nurture. The king is under the impression that it is fated that his son will be a tyrant, and so locks him up as a preventative measure; being a tyrant is, then, something that he sees as being part of one’s nature; de la Barca deals with all this very cleverly, because the prince has been in jail for most of his life, and so could say with some justification that even if he is released and behaves tyrannically what would one expect of someone who has been treated as a criminal? The king has, he would say, created the beast, created the criminal, by treating him as such, by raising him in a way that is likely to result in extreme resentment and anti-social behaviour. If you were watching a performance of the play, at the time it was written, you’d also likely pick up on the theme of whether one has a duty to one’s king or a duty to one’s loved ones, but that, as a modern reader, didn’t interest me.

Well, isn’t this pleasant? I haven’t written anything negative at all yet, and I won’t, really, because the play is very good, although it isn’t perfect or amazing. The most significant criticism one could make is that it’s too short; it is only three acts, three short acts, and there are plot points that de la Barca seems to race through but which, to be effective, needed more space given to them. For example, Rossaura, who is looking to avenge her honour, is pretty pointless as a character. Her whole storyline could have been cut and it wouldn’t have adversely affected the play, in fact it actually works as a distraction because de la Barca seems to assume you’re aware of certain things without making them clear, such as that initially she was trying to pass for a man.

It is difficult to make an informed judgement about the playwright’s language because this is, of course, a play in translation from Spanish, and in terms of the two editions I checked out the quality varied wildly. In the edition that I read, and which I am reviewing, it was impressive enough, though, and there are a [small] number of memorable and quotable lines. It is worth noting that I did not read the edition pictured above, which is a verse translation of Life is a Dream, but a more recent rendering into prose [as translated by Michael Kidd]; I chose that edition because I wanted to focus more on the writing and less on the structure of the verse [which isn’t, apparently, particularly startling or impressive, and certainly wasn’t in the verse edition I looked at]; Kidd explains in his introduction that he made the choice for prose partly for this reason, because the language loses a great deal of its beauty when one attempts to impose a rhyming structure on it. In any case, Life is a Dream, in either prose or verse, will only take you roughly three hours to read and it is well worth 180 minutes of your [waking] life.

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